Is Your Nonprofit’s Mission Obsolete — Or Just Ready for a New Direction?

Measuring the dual bottom lines of sustainability and impact can help you determine if the time has come for your nonprofit to conclude your mission — or pivot to a new one.

Is Your Nonprofit’s Mission Obsolete — Or Just Ready for a New Direction?
14 mins read

How will your nonprofit adapt to a world where the need for your services no longer exists?

It’s not unusual for companies of all stripes to embrace vision and mission, but for a nonprofit, vision and mission are the oxygen driving strategy and impact. So, what if an organization needs to revisit the mission (and the work) to ensure sustainability through greater impact? Shouldn’t a new mission—ideally bolstered by a clear strategy—shape what programming a nonprofit continues, starts, and/or stops?

But yes (the obvious answer) is harder than you might think. This is especially true in social services where need outpaces capacity. For social service nonprofits, the gap between need and capacity often contributes to mission creep: any service provided is a good service because it easily aligns with a worthy cause.

But if we take seriously the idea that nonprofit work requires a hard look at the dual bottom line—both impact and sustainability—a pivot in mission and vision should demand some tough choices, and those choices may well push you to envision a world where the need for your services no longer exists.

After 140 years of serving children and families as one of the oldest and largest child welfare organizations in the country, the newly renamed Brightpoint is making such a pivot. We’re challenging ourselves to end foster care as we know it—a practice we played an historic role in shaping as an alternative to placing children in orphanages or institutions.

While still early in this transformative journey, we’ve taken two critical steps forward to reimagine our purpose: first, we are stepping away from services not aligned with our vision for impact, and second, we changed our name. These strategic pivots would be real risks for any organization. For a longstanding, large, statewide provider like us, moving away from the very practice—serving children in foster care—upon which we built our reputation was fraught with anxiety.

First, a Little Context about How We Got Here

During my board interview for CEO in 2019, I shared my view of child welfare based on 20 years of field experience in both the government and nonprofit sectors. Simply put: we were failing children and families. Despite significant increases in funding, oversight, and accountability, child welfare was stalled in making meaningful progress to address the complex challenges of child maltreatment.

The number of children entering foster care annually in our country remains stubbornly high at just over 200,000, even while showing declines since 2017. After entering care, most children remain in the system for far too long. In Illinois, for example, of the 6,400 children who left foster care in 2022, fully half spent longer than 29 months (2.4 years) in care. Added to this is the reality that 76% of confirmed child maltreatment cases are due to neglect (often tied to poverty)—a large part of the reason children languish in care, yet something that foster care is not equipped to fix. Research even suggests that we may do more long-term damage by removing children from their homes than they would otherwise risk even as victims of maltreatment. In short, we are unlikely to “foster” our way out of child neglect and abuse, and the intervention may be leaving some worse off.

For our organization, the need to pivot—and disrupt—was clear. Public health experts puts child maltreatment among other high cost public health problems (like heart disease and diabetes) and estimates its economic burden at $592 billion. We challenged ourselves to imagine what it would look like to shift away from responding to child maltreatment and towards preventing it entirely by focusing more on root causes, especially those risks associated with poverty.

Acknowledging When We Are Part of the Problem

As nonprofit leaders, we have a unique role in acting on the vision we have for the world. In human services’ complex and constantly changing landscape, our leadership can come with the unique burden of acknowledging that we sometimes play a role (albeit unwittingly) in the problem we are trying to solve.

For us, it meant acknowledging the role we have played historically in reinforcing systemic inequities that often “divorced” parents from their children, providing foster care options rather than addressing child maltreatment’s root causes—like poverty, social isolation, and the failures of other safety-net programs. Of course, this situation is not unique to child welfare. Nonprofits seeking to address other complex societal problems, such as homelessness and food insecurity, have engaged in similar self-reflection, challenging long-held assumptions that impede real impact while resisting the call for yet another well-intentioned but ultimately insufficient remedy. As sector leaders, we owe those we serve—our funders and ourselves—more.

The Need to Take Risks

It can be surprisingly easy to slip into the repetitive cycle of funding where making changes is neither necessary nor financially advantageous. Too often, we can become complacent in this predictability, waiting for funders to prompt changes that then elicit our responses. While challenging, nonprofit leaders need to initiate the kinds of changes we know can deepen our impact, whether redesigning our work or walking away from programming altogether, instead of waiting on funders to force us to adapt. This involves risk, which is a big reason that change in our sector can be so difficult. At Brightpoint, our strategy pushed us to undertake two risky moves: transitioning out of deep-end residential treatment by returning a $7.2M contract and resetting our brand identity with a new name.

While rare, these are not unheard of in the nonprofit sector, especially for those with government partnerships—and these risks can look very different for each organization. It might mean returning a contract that doesn’t fully cover costs, reducing staff levels and the number of clients served to increase compensation levels, or moving from an untested service model to an evidence-based one. None of this is easy, and taking risks comes with near certainty that missteps will occur along the way. But there’s no question that there is an ROI in doing differently that demands more of our attention as leaders.

We’ll Learn Along the Way

Rather than seeing risks as something to avoid, let’s take a lesson from our best teachers and understand them as opportunities for growth and learning. At Brightpoint, our strategic pivot taught us two valuable lessons about the benefits of upending the predictable.

Lesson 1: Chase solutions, not problems.

When providing services to children and families facing the greatest risks, it can be hard to envision what transformational change might look like given the myriad policies and procedures imposed by funders. Often, we only see the need of today, especially if our programming is crisis-driven—anything else seems like a distraction. This is how we sometimes become part of the problem we are trying to solve and represented the primary motivating factor in our decision to return the large government contract for work our organization had performed for a century.

That is, after more than 100 years, we realized our program model, contract, and funding constraints made working with the entire family in a holistic way impossible. Consequently, we had to recognize that realizing our vision of shorter stays, integrating families more fully into programming, and providing ongoing support post-discharge were not changes our public funder could accelerate with us. While there was agreement about the ideas and the direction, our timelines for change were quite different.

We had a choice: we could tolerate work we felt was the wrong response to the needs of the children and families we served, or we could live up to our strategic vision by choosing to exit a deep-end service in pursuit of more upstream programming that prioritized strengthening families. We chose the uncommon path: we walked away from a viable revenue stream to explore programming options that could radically reduce the need for our services.

However, there was an opportunity cost to not make this decision. That is, it would cost our strategy, management time (and attention), fundraising focus, and alternative uses for organizational assets like property. Yet board and management imagined something too rare in our sector: the value of working capital made possible by selling or leasing the building to accelerate strategy and to focus on solutions rather than continuing to manage the problem of too few beds for children entering care.

The result was a transition, over several months, of services, staff, and the building to a more specialized provider with residential treatment as core to their vision and mission. Our pivot and this decision not only taught us about the power of focus but also the importance of working within the broader ecosystem to ensure that program participants, staff, and funders aren’t left holding the bag, instead serving as part of the transition.

Lesson 2: With transparency, a long history can be an asset.

Throughout our strategic discussions, it became clear that our name, Children’s Home & Aid, was a better description of the work we used to do rather than what we were moving towards. It did not reflect our aspiration to end the need for foster care, and, more specifically, the use of the word “aid” felt less like partnership with families and more like the old, paternalistic model of philanthropy. But a name and brand change represent a serious undertaking.

Unlike for-profits, most nonprofits do not invest heavily in marketing to create brand awareness. Few of us are household names despite a universal desire among boards to be better known within our respective communities. Any brand equity we have is hard-earned, narrowly recognized, and a thing of intense meaning (and sometimes literal investment) for participants, staff, donors, and funders alike.

But our case for change was clear. We wanted to reimagine our impact, shifting focus from responding to the consequences of child maltreatment to preventing its root causes. Doing this required candor about our role in participating in children’s removal from their families where poverty’s underlying and unaddressed issues played an outsized role in familial separations.

Our long history, and the goodwill it engenders, allows us to have thoughtful conversations—often with adults who were adopted from Children’s Home & Aid as children—about why our new identity must reflect our essential belief that family is a child’s greatest asset. Our appellative shift does not negate the lifechanging role the organization played in the lives of tens of thousands of children over the past 140 years. However, it clearly says that we need to shift the conversation. We are moving beyond a narrative conflated with services to one that signals purpose—without the assumptions about how we fix “broken” families. Our new name, Brightpoint, conveys both our view of the power of partnering with families as well as our aspiration to be for them what they are for us: a bright point in a complex and challenging world.

We must keep working to fill the gaps between our aspirations and reality.

The nonprofit sector continues to play an extraordinary role in American civil society, especially those providing social services. We fill the gaps between our aspirations as a society and the realities of how those aspirations are often not realized evenly.

But we are more, and must do more, than mind these gaps. Bending the equity curve and solving some of our most vexing social problems requires a periodic refresh where we take risks and allow the gravity of our vision and mission to contemplate a world without the need for our services. Once imagined, we must be the catalyst for the kind of changes that may well have us put some of what we do behind us, looking instead to the kind of sustainability that comes from providing solutions rather than services.

About the Author

For more than 25 years, Mike Shaver has been a child and family advocate committed to the idea that investing in child and youth wellbeing starts with strong, supported families. Mike’s experience includes the public and private sectors across five states as well as at the federal level as a policy advocate.

Mike joined Brightpoint — then Children’s Home & Aid — as the Chief Operating Officer, a role he held until 2014 when he moved to Florida to lead the Children’s Home Society for Florida as President and CEO. Mike returned in 2019 when the board named him President and CEO.

Mike’s passionate about two things as a CEO: changing the life trajectories of children and youth by partnering with families and using data to tell the story. He knows neither job will be done by the time he is ready for retirement. But he knows the solution — supporting families — lies at the core of every child’s well-being.

Mike’s the proud father of two adult sons — Nick and Tyrus — both adopted from the Illinois child welfare system and has only recently gotten used to being called grandpa by his eight-year-old grandson, Sebastian.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

One thought on “Is Your Nonprofit’s Mission Obsolete — Or Just Ready for a New Direction?

  1. Brilliant! As a non-profit funder for many years, and then as a consultant, the question I always posed was, “How are you putting yourself out of business?”

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